The chatrams built by the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur are ornate wonders. Yet, many are rented out as storage spaces or simply abandoned.

HAVING got off a rickety bus at a dusty junction of Needamangalam, a fertile village near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, I tried to find my way to Yamunambal Chatram. Questions were met with blank looks. The travel books, which don't mention it, were not helpful either. Eventually, I met an old man, who, with a half smile, pointed me in the direction of the "the old school" and led me to the unexpected ornate wonder. The Yamunambal chatram is a beautiful piece of Maratha architecture. It is now used as a school for the less privileged and a makeshift storage space for bags of grain. It is one of the 18 chatrams built by the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur. Chatrams were not mere boarding places. They provided food, health facilities and space for the animals that accompanied travellers. Each chatram was separated from the other by a day's travel. Old resting places for travellers are found in other countries, but what makes these chatrams different from the caravanserais is that they cater to all kinds of travellers - not merely traders. In South India, trade and pilgrim routes coexisted and the inns served both pilgrims and travellers. Endowing pilgrims and pilgrimage was considered important and special care and facilities were provided. The most important pilgrimage route in South India was the one that led to Rameswaram. Along this route, 18 chatrams were built and patronised by the Maratha Kings in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The most elaborate and ornate of them are the Mukthambal Chatram at Orathanadu and Yamunambal Chatram at Needamangalam.

The most ornate

Mukthambal Chatram, built by Serfoji II in 1802 C.E., is 20 kilometres from Thanjavur. Many stories explain the origin of this building. One version is that it was a small palace built for his mistress Mukthambal. It is on her request that the services of the chatram were extended to include medical facilities. The chatram also served as a royal camp when the kings visited the area and this explains its elaborateness and grandeur. The Mukthambal Chatram has two large courtyards at the entrance. One is partially enclosed by ornate colonnade and fashioned like a chariot driven by horses. While, the other courtyard is secured with an entrance gate. Behind this is a series of smaller courtyards and halls that make the living quarters. Further behind are the kitchen and the large rear yard used for various functions. The first floor is an ornate hall with wooden columns and false ceiling. The highlight of this chatram is the sculpted brickwork that adorns the entrance court. Usually the ornamental structures and decorations are done in stucco. Here the bricks themselves are cut and carved and placed as part of the structure. These columns are left un-plastered and when light showers on them; a wonderful red glow fills the hall.

Play of light

The columns have large brackets fashioned like plantain flowers and the domes over them are intricately decorated. A series of arches span and shade the verandahs. Light and shadow weave to make beautiful spaces. The construction until the plinth is in granite and the brick and wooden columns are placed over this granite base to prevent raising dampness. The many paintings that once adorned the inner walls are now lost. The Needamangalam chatram is similar to Orathanadu in its arrangement. It is slightly scaled down in size, without the first floor. But, it is more ornate on the outside and the brick carvings are elaborate. This chatram is a commemorative structure dedicated to Yamunambal, a pregnant woman who mysteriously gave up her life for the well being of the King and his subjects. Most of these chatrams were well endowed. When The British annexed Thanjavur, all the properties, temples and endowments became part of the colonial administration. A protracted legal battle saw the return of the temples to the legal heirs of the Maratha rulers. However, the chatrams and thousands of acres of lands remained with the revenue board. In 1871, the chatrams' administration was handed over to the local administration. Currently, the District Collector administers them. Thanjavur is the only district to have a separate chatram administration department to administer the many properties the chatrams still own. The chatrams no longer serve their original purpose. They are now rented out as schools or used as storage spaces. A few are locked and some virtually abandoned. These chatrams fetch meagre rents, insufficient for their maintenance. However, they are not without revenue. The many lands they own fetch them substantial funds. But, it is used for paying the staff and running a few schools and colleges.The architectural value of these chatrams is yet to be fully realised. It is only now that steps are being taken to document and initiate conservation efforts. The Thanajvur INTACH chapter and the Chatram administration have undertaken a documentation of these heritage structures. The Collectorate has requested the Archaeological Survey of India to take over the Orathanadu chatram and conserve it. Needamangalam and other structures await attention.